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Ford Leads the Way

The Ford Motor Company stepped front-and-center in the effort to fine alternatives to high-priced imported oil last week with the announcement that it will offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tank as an option in the F-150 pickup truck, its most popular brand that currently sells 700,000 models a year.

Now it won’t come cheap. There’s a $250-$350 charge for the vehicle to come “prepped” from the factory. That means putting hardened valves, valve seats, piston and rings into the V6 engine. But after that, there’s a $7-9000 charge for installing the CNG tank in the cargo bay – made considerably more expensive than in Europe because safety standards are interpreted in a way that makes them much more expensive. This lifts the showroom price from $24,000 to around $32,000. That’s a big chunk but Ford swears you’ll make it back in three years by substituting fuels.

With the price of gas at around $3.80 per gallon and the oil-equivalent of natural gas at around $1.20, those savings should add up fast.  Of course all this assumes that the price differential won’t narrow to its traditional level, but that doesn’t seem very likely now. Electrical plants have shown a tendency to move quickly back to cheaper coal if the price of gas rises, but the difference between the crack spread and the spark spread seems to have separated permanently, much to natural gas’s advantage.

All this is good news for those looking to substitute some of our abundant natural gas for foreign oil in our transport sector.  In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made right now:

Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, CA already has a network of 360 natural gas fueling stations at truck stops along Interstate highways and is trying to build a complete national infrastructure.  NGV stations cost $750,000 a pop but Clean Energy is looking at the long term.  The ready availability of filling stations will help spur the conversion of giant 18-wheel diesel haulers, which most people see as the ripest target for conversion.

Heavy-duty fleet vehicles are making rapid progress.  Buses and garbage trucks are in the forefront. Eight out of ten new vehicles bought in 2012 by Waste Management, the leader in the field, were powered by natural gas.

There are now 120,000 gas vehicles on the road in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles of America, the trade group.  Unfortunately, this constitutes only a tiny fraction of the 15.2 million NGVs worldwide. Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, improbably, are the leaders. We’re behind in making the transition, but there’s plenty of room to catch up.

In a report issued in June, Citi Research estimated that one-quarter of the world’s present consumption of oil could be replaced by natural gas under present conditions. More than 9 million barrels per day could be replaced in truck transport, 2 million of these in the US. Another 3 million b/d could be opted out in marine transport and 200,000 b/d in railroad locomotives.

All this would be fairly easy to transact since it involves large commercial organizations with centralized decision-making.  Sooner or later, however, this approach is likely to run up against limits.  The stumbling block will be the vastly more decentralized system of private automobiles, which still consumes 60 percent of our oil and involves a car in every garage and a gas station on every other corner. Here the problem of building an infrastructure and achieving widespread distribution is much more difficult.

The problem comes because reformers are viewing natural gas as a fuel instead of a feedstock. Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are the most readily available options – and both are legal – but in the end they are going to have their limits. It will make much more sense to use methane as a feedstock for the manufacture of liquids, methanol in particular.  These will be much easier to transport and will substitute for gasoline in current car engines with only minimum adjustment – nothing like the $8000 required for the F-150. Valero has just opted to build a $700 million methanol manufacturing plant in St. Charles, Louisiana in anticipation of this demand. All depends on whether the Environmental Protection Agency decides to give a go-ahead to use methanol in car engines. The matter is pending.

So the effort to use our abundant natural gas resources to reduce our dependence on expensive, unpredictable and unreliable foreign sources of oil is making headway. Ford’s decision to equip the F-150 with CNG is a beginning. But there’s more to come.

Natural Gas Demand Causes the EU to Invite Russia to Join…

Hold the presses, stop the cable and network news shows, break away from Twitter, and forget for a moment about Facebook… Why? Read the latest wire from The Associated Press! Many European nations, including Great Britain, have signed a multibillion dollar long term contract for Russian natural gas. The signing was accompanied by a decision by the European Community to integrate Russia into the community’s governance– NATO officials expressed anger and disappointment. Great Britain’s ambassador to America gently, but affirmatively, responded to the New York Time’s question concerning “what does this do to America and Great Britain’s special relationship? Well, it isn’t so special anymore.” She went on, “the world is evolving and Europe, as well as Great Britain, is evolving also. . . The alliance, and indeed NATO, is a relic of the past. I am sorry but that’s just how it is!”

Please don’t respond like many in America did to the late 1930s broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, narrated by Orson Wells. Don’t fear! don’t run out to the street! No deal with Russia for natural gas has yet been signed, NATO is still intact. The European Commission and European Union are still alive, if not well, given the economic problems plaguing many of its members and the continent as well as Great Britain.

While not factual, my flight into hyperbole and negative fantasy could become a reality sometime in the future. What got me thinking about the possibilities was an interesting article in the Oct. 31 Financial Times (coincidentally, on Halloween) by Paolo Scaroni, Chief Executive of Eni, Europe’s largest natural gas dealer.

Scaroni’s thoughts were not offered to trick or treat us. They were meant to make us think seriously about opportunity costing and risk analysis sure to be undertaken by European countries because of their increased need for natural gas and other energy sources.

Scaroni suggests that Europe’s present energy policies and related energy costs impede economic growth, and do not reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Of note, he indicates that “the problem is that we have so far failed to grasp the implications of the U.S. shale revolution for Europe. Thanks to the rapid increase in efficient non-conventional gas production, U.S. companies pay about $3.50 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs) for their natural gas…That is about a third of what Europeans pay. “

Apart from high gas feedstock costs, Europeans also pay a hefty set of charges to sustain incentives to invest in renewables. As a result, Europe’s electricity is “twice as expensive as America’s” and gives the U.S. a clear competitive advantage with investors around the world, including investors from Europe. Why invest, build or expand in Europe if your company is energy intensive?  The U.S. has the Red Sox, Lady Gaga, Madonna and, most importantly, relatively cheap natural gas fuel.

Because natural gas in the U.S. now crowds out coal, Europe gets a lot of its surplus coal for power plants. So while natural gas use has declined, it is increasingly hostage to dirty U.S. coal- sort of a negative equilibrium for our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Rising carbon emissions from coal have come close to netting out the carbon benefits from investment in renewables, natural gas and the economic downturn.

What are Europe’s generally intelligent public and private sector leaders to do?  Sounds obvious!  Increase imports of shale gas from the U.S.!  No, says Scaroni. By the time transport costs are added and subject to liquefaction in the U.S. for shipping and regasification for use in Europe, shale gas exported from the U.S. is twice as expensive as gas in the U.S. While likely a bit exaggerated, the author indicates that buying U.S. natural gas would be economically disastrous.

It is also not a good political move. Besides the costs for U.S. natural gas, many Europeans still view the U.S. as “that” upstart nation, once defined by old Europe as the “colonies.” Heck, it was only near 325 years ago; it’s too early to pay reparations.

Scaroni thinks the answer is to explore home grown shale oil assets and nuclear energy, as well as increasing the efficiency of conventional fuels. To secure the first two, however, will be tough given the opposition of environmentalists and people who would like to keep Europe just as it is. Further, high density wall to wall development throughout Europe and Great Britain creates even more fear concerning despoiling the remaining open space and breeds an intense “not in my neighborhood” attitude in many areas. Efficiency is praised by most, because it is often used devoid of real meaning in political rhetoric. Who can be against it, until specifics and likely mandates, costs, and its impact are put on the table?

Scaroni, realizing the obstacles to lowering the costs of gas to U.S. benchmark prices, suggests strengthening commercial and political ties with Russia and perhaps other traditional non U.S. energy partners.  Reading between the lines of the author’s words, he seems to be saying, “let’s milk Russia for all the comparably inexpensive gas we can get.”  WOW!  Communist! Reprobate!  Misanthrope!  No.  Probably just a good analyst and business person.

Without access to NSA data or James Bond, I still almost can hear the buzz at the Pentagon and State Department.  I can see the dour faces at NATO offices in Brussels. I can visualize the depression in the EC and EU. Sure, Russia may soon find a welcome mat in Europe. Its entrance price will be relatively cheap natural gas. New alliances, new travel patterns for diplomats, better food in Russia in the future, new political fun and games as well as new problems for the U.S.

Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe are likely to increase, but Russia’s natural gas dominance is probably not around the corner. The West can take a deep breath.  Use of fracking, governed by strong environmental regulations, likely will increase and result in expanded natural gas supplies in Europe and Great Britain.  While exports from Russia will increase, they will reflect a measured increase at least in the short term.

Russian exports to Europe and Great Britain will not have a major impact on the U.S. We can manage any uncertain political changes and the European price of natural gas will not have a major effect on the U.S. price of the same.

What’s the U.S. going to do with its natural gas? While LNG exports from the U.S. may increase to Great Britain and Europe (as well as Asia), the increase will be moderate, given the continued absence of sufficient port capacity, the cost and the slow pace of government approvals. Pressure, in light of predicted surpluses and the advocacy of alternative fuel supporters, may help open up the almost monopolistic U.S. vehicular fuel markets and increase natural gas demand.

Natural gas prices in the U.S. will remain subject by and large to U.S. production and related costs, as well as regional market behavior and investor speculation. Contrary to oil, natural gas produced in the U.S. likely will not play a major role for at least the next several years in global markets

Is this good for U.S. and U.S. consumers?  On balance, yes. The gap between demand and production as well as production potential will remain visible. ROI in natural gas wells and rigs will probably be sufficient to secure modest production increases. Natural gas prices will likely go up over time but remain well under the price of oil when both are converted to vehicular fuels. Assuming positive government rule-making and the increased use of natural gas derivatives, ethanol and methanol as alternative transitional vehicular fuels, consumers at the pump will benefit from the continued differential and the U.S. will benefit security-wise as well as environmentally and economically.

Can the Marcellus give birth to CNG vehicles?

What if America had so much natural gas it didn’t know what to do with it?

Right now that’s the situation in the Marcellus Shale, the vast formation that underlies nearly all of Pennsylvania. There just isn’t enough demand for what’s available. And the same situation could be facing the entire United States in just a few years, according to speakers at the 2013 Natural Gas Utilization Conference held at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh last week.

“Today there are 800 shut in wells in the Marcellus, waiting for an increase in price and improvements in infrastructure,” said Justin Carlson, manager of energy analytics at Bentek Energy of Colorado told the gathering. “By 2017, demand could dip below supply for the entire United States. We’re not doing enough to support growth. The market needs more users.”

Where could you find those new consumers? Virtually everyone agrees that there’s one market that is begging for greater natural gas use – the transportation sector.

Some companies are already looking for ways to do it. Last year Consol Energy Inc. and Praxair, Inc., a Connecticut-based manufacturer of industrial gases, was preparing to build a $2 billion plant to convert gas from the Marcellus into gasoline and diesel blends for use in cars and trucks. In the end, however, the economics didn’t quite work. “The project would have generated a positive rate of return but not the 12% that investors are looking for,” said Dante Bonaquist, chief scientist and corporation fellow at Praxair, who spoke at the conference. “We had to give it up.”

So absent a liquids option, most gas producers are opting for another technology – compressed natural gas. Leading the pack has been Chesapeake Energy, which set a goal to convert its entire fleet of vehicles to CNG by 2015. At the current pace it will hit the 80% mark in 2014. Last year Chesapeake’s Peake Fuel Solutions affiliate also partnered with GE to launch “CNG In A Box,” a package that compresses natural gas from a pipeline into CNG fueling stations so that small and large retailers can become vendors of natural gas. The package was introduced at the National Association of Convenience Stores 2012 annual convention.

“The 8-by-10-foot container is easy to ship and its modular design allows for plug-and-play,” said Bob Jarvis, spokesman for Chesapeake. “It makes pay-at-the-pump a familiar and secure experience.” GE already has a manufacturing plant up and running in Houston. On Sept. 17 it announced a memorandum of understanding with China’s Endurance Industries to deliver 260 CNGs In A Box to fuel China’s rapidly growing conversion to natural gas vehicles.

Last week, however, Chesapeake was forced to disband its seven-member Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force as part of an austerity-driven reorganization. But other companies may pick up the slack. “Chesapeake has been an important player in growing the natural gas vehicle market, but other companies and organizations have taken on that role now,” said Rich Kolodziej, president of advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Range Resources, another major player in the Marcellus, is also making an all-out effort to promote CNG vehicles. It recently closed a deal with GM to buy an entire fleet of trucks for its Pennsylvania operations. The company expects to save 40-50% of vehicle operating costs by switching from gasoline. With 180 trucks in the region, each carrying a 17-gallon tank, Range will save $3,000 each time its fleet refuels.

But is compressed natural gas the best way to go? The technology involves high-pressure tanks, both in storage and in your car or truck and involves a whole new infrastructure. Converting natural gas into methanol – a fairly simple process – would allow us to use the current infrastructure with only a few minor adjustments. Existing vehicles can be modified to use methanol for only a few hundred dollars and flex-fuel vehicles could use either methanol or traditional gasoline.

Methanol works better from the supply side as well. “The economics of methanol would have been more attractive,” said Bonaquist, of the Praxair-Consol Energy proposal that didn’t make it off the drawing boards. “The conversion and purification sections of the plant would have been less complex. It would have been particularly advantageous for smaller scale production.”

So what’s the problem? Well, unfortunately, putting methanol in your car hasn’t yet been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes it illegal. If the regulations could be changed, methanol would become a much easier route for moving the nation’s looming gas surpluses into the transportation sector. There could hardly be a more promising way of freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil.